Millions of Britons in rural areas are missing out on the "superfast" broadband revolution, it was claimed today, as the gap between internet speeds in cities and the countryside hit an all-time high.
Telecoms regulator Ofcom warned the difference between the 'haves' and 'have-nots' would also get worse before it gets better as telecom and pay-TV giants focus investment on next generation "superfast" fibre networks in Britain's biggest towns.
Figures revealed by Ofcom today showed the average internet connection speed in urban areas is now 26.4Mb per second. In rural areas it's just 9.9Mb. Rural speeds have more than doubled since 2011 but households in the countryside now trail city dwellers by an unprecedented 16.5Mb per second.
The difference means it will take far longer to download films or music and that universal services such as BBC iPlayer are stil beyond the reach of millions. Experts claim the roll-out of smart gas and electricity meters in the countryside could also be hindered because they rely on phone signals or WiFi connections.
The report comes just a month after the National Audit Office warned taxpayers were at risk of being overcharged on a delayed £1.2 billion scheme to install high-speed broadband in rural areas because BT (LSE: BT-A.L - news) held all the contracts to roll it out. The Audit Office added the Government's target of rolling out faster services to 90 per cent of the country by May 2015 would be missed by two years.
Dominic Baliszewski, telecoms expert at broadbandchoices.co.uk, said: "We still have a situation of broadband 'haves' and 'have-nots'.
"How can it be fair that residents in rural areas received an average 9.9Mb per second whilst their urban counterparts enjoy speeds that are almost three times as fast." He added: "Households in non-fibre areas will need to make themselves heard if they are going to be included in the fibre revolution."
Claudio Pollack, Ofcom’s Consumer Group Director, admitted: “With the average household now owning more than three types of internet-connected devices, consumers are demanding more than ever from their broadband service.
"We are yet to see the full effect of Government measures to improve broadband availability in rural areas, which should also help to boost speeds.”
Ofcom said Virgin Media had driven the roll-out of superfast broadband in towns and cities as it looks to double the speeds of most of its cable broadband csutomers.
The average broadband speed across the UK is now 14.7Mb per second, 22 per cent higher than six months ago. But the vast majority of UK residents, 86 per cent, remain on packages where speeds are advertised as "up to 10Mbps".
While overall average speeds were boosted by take-up of ‘superfast’ services and providers’ automatically upgrading customers on to faster broadband packages, fewer than one in five users overall has a superfast connection, offering speeds of 30Mbps or more.
Of the 14 ISP packages included in the report, Virgin Media’s ‘up to’ 120Mbit/s service achieved the fastest download speeds, at an average of 112.6Mbps.
Of the other superfast packages included in the research, BT’s ‘up to’ 76Mbps service delivered average speeds of 62.1Mbit/s, while Plusnet’s ‘up to’ 76Mbps achieved average speeds of 61.0Mbps.